In the opening moments of Lorna Tucker's Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist Vivienne Westwood sits alone in a velvet chair, and moans "I will get into it, but it's soooboring." In the next 80 minutes we get a greatest hits rundown of Ms. Westwood's successes and setbacks. We also see glimpses of the woman behind the movement, but Westwood is always keenly aware of herself. Tucker's documentary shows us how punk, and one of the leading labelers of punk, is able to re-invent the wheel while selling the public the wheel covered in graffiti and spit.
We follow Westwood's history from early days as a single mother, smitten by Mr. Westwood at a young age, and then increasingly bored of him and his dreams of a Leave it to Beaverhome life. She left him for Malcolm McLaren, an art student at the time, and history was spray painted in the sky. McLaren and Westwood took up residency in Camden Town (a strange little pocket of a town, filled with underground stables and music venues) and sold records for a time in a little store called "Let it Rock". Over their partnership, "Let it Rock" changed names a handful of times (Notable legendary names include: "Too Fast to Live, Too Young To Die", "Sex", "Seditionaries", and now it is the beautiful "World's End") and customers came and went. Some customers, as is the case with Johnny Rotten, were handpicked and styled into superstars. As Westwood became increasingly interested in fashion and selling sex and destruction through fashion, McLaren because jealous. As she did with her husband before, Westwood out grew their relationship and moved on.
In this documentary, Westwood is uninterested in talking about the Sex Pistols and the pair's time together. The subject is dropped fairly quickly to focus on Westwood's own legacy, but if you are interested in those formative days of Punk Rock, read Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral Historyby Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It's fire.
The second half of the documentary focuses on Westwood's humanitarianism and her rise to popularity. Nowadays, Westwood and her husband, fellow designer Andreas Kronthaler, are working diligently to make sure the brand she built from nothing is quality assured. Westwood is concerned that her brand has gotten too big, and is more interested in her humanitarian efforts than making money by brand expansions. There are more than a few shots of Westwood marching against fracking with fashionable shoes, smash cut with clips of her accepting Designer of the Year awards.
It's a little upsetting to see the designer's humanitarian efforts skated over when Westwood so clearly wants that to be the focus of the film's runtime. The Westwood camp put this on twitter in regards to the documentary: "The Vivienne Westwood documentary set for release this year, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist has been made and produced by a third party and as it stands is not endorsed by Vivienne Westwood. Lorna Tucker asked to film Vivienne's activism and followed her around for a couple of years, but there's not even five minutes of activism in the film, instead there's lots of old fashion footage which is free and available to view online. It's a shame because the film is mediocre, and Vivienne and Andreas are not."
At its heart, I believe Tucker's documentary tried to get us closer to a woman who is not very interested in letting us get close, and in doing so, the film is just as frustrating and fascinating as fashion and punk was at the time of Westwood's rise. It's a straightforward movie about a woman who is anything but. Westwood certainly led a wild and weird lifetime, but underneath the safety pins and the cigarettes, there is a heart of good will and true artistry. To get a true sense of the icon, watch standalone interviews with Vivienne Westwood. She's incredible.
Punk has always existed in a strange in-between of culture and consumerism. There is a hilarious cut away where a museum curator is carefully steaming and folding an iconic Westwood/McLaren piece: A ripped to shreds, dirty sweatshirt, covered in swastikas and "Anarchy in the UK" lyrics. That moment defines the documentary. Westwood has become high art to be observed and cared for, but also, ya know, Get pissed. Destroy.
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.